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The Decline of Thinking’s Universality:
Against the Hyper-Compartmentalization of Knowledge (or the Hyper-Compartmentalizers)

It may be ironic that a blog which draws heavily from the philosophical tradition would start thus:

Philosophy is dead.[1]

Of course, that’s not a particularly revolutionary idea, and especially not in this day and age. We all know that philosophy has been replaced by hard, solid, objective SCIENCE!, that has no need for the empty, pretentious quibblings of philosophers, who confirm nothing with factual, real, physical evidence…! According the prevailing creation myths of SCIENCE!, no one before Galileo conducted experiments, and all human knowledge was purely based on religious dogma, superstition. It was the Dark Ages, because Rome — the sole guaranteer of Reason and Progress — had fallen to savage invading barbarians and its own opulent corruption. It was the Dark Ages, and life was poor, nasty, brutish and short.[2]

What rationality did exist was what Christian monks working in dungeons and monasteries, hunched over on copying tables, were able to preserve by scraps and bits of unoriginally copying manuscripts from the Greeks and Romans — because Augustine said it was what any good Christian ought to read, since he was such a squealing fanboy for people like Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, etc. And then finally, it took a handful of privileged white men in Western Europe to pull the ‘West’ up from its own bootstraps, out of the Dark Ages, and to dominate the world again, as they had meant to do, since they inherited the Greco-Roman legacy. Meanwhile, the Church burnt anyone at the sake who contradicted its dogma[3], so the ‘West’ had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the brave new world of innovation. In fact, before this “Renaissance” the West was so behind, that they had to learn and ‘recover’ what they historically knew about the Ancients from those fanatical, backward Arabs! Then thanks to these privileged white European men, we discover the world is not flat[4], revolves around the Sun (Heliocentricism), and Chris can finally discover America, the Reformation breaks the clerical stranglehold on PROGRESS!, and the rest (SCIENCE!)history:

^ Above ^ is a paraphrase of a cultural meme we see espoused by standard textbooks, teachers, TV presentations, Joe the In’ernet-Know-all-Tuff-Guy, etc., treating this subject of SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS! (and all the subtext notwithstanding.) Absurd as this narrative is, I’m not going to dwell on it here, as this entire blog is dedicated to smashing such creation myths of PROGRESS (aka positivism).[5]

Now in truth, things were, as they often are, actually a little more complicated. First of all, all knowledge — all SCIENCE! — was considered under the domain of Philosophy. If you were a thinking person — no matter how amateur or professional, no matter how shallowly or profoundly — what you were doing when pondering the universe, human relations, physical phenomena, God’s attributes, etc., all went back to that word: Philosophy.

  • When Galileo disproved prevailing beliefs about Aristotle’s theory of Motion, it wasn’t called Physics — it was called Natural Philosophy.
  • When Copernicus uprooted Geocentricism, it wasn’t called Physics — it was called Natural Philosophy
  • When Newton discovered the principles of gravity, and formulated MATH around this, it wasn’t called Physics — it was still called Natural Philosophy

( I’m just going to pause here and mention that Natural Philosophy was the discipline that is more or less what we would call science nowadays — philosophy concerning in the nature of motion, matter, astronomy, chemistry (shared with alchemy), geology, animals and natural history, etc. )

Intellectuality — the scope of things you would be educated in — was continuous, fluid, and organic. The Educated were well versed in theology, logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics, rhetoric, aesthetics, the Classics, politics, history[6], etc., because these were all universally recognized aspects of Knowledge of the Universetwo sides of the same coin — or, better put, different faces on the same die:

Immanuel Kant had just as much to say about the limitations of and spontaneous hard-wired nature of human cognition[7], and how if everyone role-played being Jesus for the rest of their lives, humanity would be better off[8], as he did about Star formation and Nebular theory[9]. Descartes’ had as much to contribute to the philosophy of mind with radical rationalist skepticism[10], as he did to math with algebra and coordinate geometry. Blaise Pascal (who was far from being blasé), math, engineering, computing, philosophy, and theology.

I realize that I am speaking of elite thinkers here, not the general learned class, but my point is that this intellectual well-roundedness was peculiar to this learned culture that sought Truth, not Tenure (at the local university or think-tank). If Truth is going to be Truth, then Truth must be universal and consistent with itself across all disciplines, all thoughts, and all time — and not irrelevant because another discipline contradicts it, as we see so commonplace nowadays. If Quantum Physics contradicts the very foundation of Positivism, this would be a problem back then, throwing Sociologists’ panties in a bunch — not a different subject.

That is what the word Philosophy really represented back in this Culture of Intellectuality — Truth in its fullest, holistic, universal, consistent sense. Philosophy was whatever was touched by rational inquiry. That is why the Copernican Revolution was so revolutionary — the paradigm shift implied by it had implications for all Knowledge, all Truth — Philosophy.

Consequently of our own ignorance and failure as intellectual culture — our modern forms of institutionalized education[11] –, we have come to mistake well-roundedness in intellectual matters for polymathy when we read about great minds like Aristotle, Avicenna, al-Biruni, da Vinci, Galileo, Pascal, and Goethe.[12] I won’t doubt the greatness of these minds, but to assume that they were polymaths — being experts in multiple subjects— is to assume Truth can be compartmentalized in subjects. These were thinkers that saw the universe holistically — in all its interconnectedness, its uniqueness, its diversity, its unity, its emergence, its decay, its life, its death. What they saw was the Universe, not an academic discipline.

Gawking in awe over their ‘polymathy’ is absurd. It’s about as absurd as if someone would be utterly floored by the genius that is Kurt Cobain, that he could play his own Nirvana songs, in addition to David Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World, the Led Zeppelin classics, and Pink Floyd. Again, I am not denigrating Kurt’s contributions to music here, but being an accomplished musician and intimately familiar with the canon of rock music (and in possession of musical skill) — all that quite honestly, goes with the territory of being a rock star, just as fluid ‘cross-disciplinary’ knowledge of PHILOSOPHY went with the territory of thinking — a territory we have now split into tinier and tinier fiefdoms of myriad grand ivory towers pock-marking a desert landscape.

If this is polymathy for today’s standards, it is because of how our academic institutions have divided up the conquest of TRUTH more or less arbitrarily into disciplines — or, better: along the lines of the communities of academics, communities who hold their own shared truisms, axioms, communal ethos, hierarchies, culture, norms, and lifestyles. All this division is for the purpose of academic hierarchy, and allocation of knowledge-as-a-resource — in other words, super-compartmentalized-hyper-specialization piss-in-the-ocean hope-tidal-forces(or that people in Management/HR)-know-what-to-do-with-it knowledge-professions. The Academia is set up so that Truth is no longer something universal — it’s a profession, and dirty, shallow lip-service paid to Truth. Afterall, compartmentalization and super-specialization is required for work on mega projects, isn’t it? NASA couldn’t have put robots on Mars with a team of philosophers, just as it wouldn’t be particularly useful to have quantum physicists diagnose cancer.

My issue, dear readers, isn’t with super-specialization. I get it. Specialists are needed to combine the sum of their work together, to work on the components for a grander project. You’re allocating labor, knowledge, time, and money. That’s not my issue.

My issue is with the myopia that comes with hyper-specialization — the ignoring of fundamental questions of the universe that we’ve wondered about since being children, and this notion that one must shy away from these profound subjects because they belong to the domain of another discipline. Really? Really?

I don’t think the issue is the saturation of knowledge — the widely held belief that there’s just too much stuff out there for one person to possibly know.

The issue, my dear readers, is the redundancyof knowledge across the (academic) boardrepeated ‘discoveries’, and convergences of ideas across the disciplines. The issue is also the kind of academic bullshit that constantly coins and re-coins new jargon for timelessly old, ordinary, daily experiences and ideas that we already have words for in the English (and every other) language! I’ve notice this — and I’m sure many of you have as well — in Economics, History, Social Science, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, and Statistics — repeated explanations, repeated jargon-invention, new words and new attention for some very, very old concepts indeed.*[13]

It would seem that TRUTH would have us the ones conquered — physicists being unable to answer questions about the epistemological foundations of their discipline (how it is that we know what we know — what gives us the cognitive capabilities to probe the universe as such — which becomes very important when one starts reading about Quantum and its unintelligibility with the observer) — modern academic ‘philosophers’ knowing nothing that their historical counterparts had about the nature of the physical universe — biologists taking teleology in nature for granted — historians overlooking/ignoring the role of biology, evolution, ecology and earth sciences — Economists utterly ignorant of anthropology in their attempts to create models of economies for non-contemporary, non-Western societies; etc.

In which our protagonist — let’s call him Joe Scholar — is trampled by the Aletheia he hoped to understand and conquer.

Do all physicists, historians, economists, biologists etc., fall into these traps? Certainly not. Some do talk extensively — even profoundly — about such issues, but they are the unrecognized exceptions, not the industry standard (or even a substantial industry minority).

Or maybe it really just boils down to this: most people are flat and one-dimensional, and with the rise of nationalized education, this norm has more or less remained the same, but they’re slightly more educated — and they can sit comfortably in their super-specialized niche. Those who are actually learning inclined, are the ones seek out knowledge well beyond their super-specialized hole-in-the-ground.

What of Philosophy as an academic discipline? Now that its historic domain has been carved out by other disciplines — with Natural Philosophy becoming Physics, Chemistry, and Biology — with Political Philosophy becoming Economics, History, the Social Sciences, Political Science — with Philosophy of Mind becoming Cognitive Science and Psychology — professional philosophy has been reduced to a pretentious, superfluous, redundant exercise in jargon-inventing and wheel-reinventing.

If Philosophy is dead, it’s because we have killed it by suppressing human’s natural curiosity, by hyper-compartmentalizing our knowledge, by maiming and quartering our framework for Truth.

I leave you with the parable of the Elephant and the Blind men as a metaphor our contemporary culture of intellectuality:

Ismael Sarepta

[A future topic: how academic disciplines choose to write their own histories of themselves — often following the standard creation myth model. What these disciplines choose to appropriate, the persons they chose, and the overlooked socio-cultural and technological milieu that these people probably took from — cultural memes and cultural knowledge, the unsung craftsmen, artisans, folk-artists, who were left out. In particular, I want to examine this notion of in the origins of rationality and philosophy in the ‘Western’ tradition — at least the Greeks, who invented our word.]


[1] “[…]And we killed it. How shall we comfort ourselves?[…]” (You know how the rest goes)

[2]  Textbooks frequently quote this philosopher who was writing in the 17th century in the aftermath of an extremely important modern conflict regarding the extent of powers and privileges that the State and Monarch can be allowed to have — the English Civil War.

[3]  That said, Pietro Pomponazzi was ignored by the Church. Galileo got off with what amounts to little more than the medieval equivalent to a slap on the wrist. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake. Why? He who has the best Church connections wins! Also worth noting here is that the Catholic Church originally was not receptive even to Aristotle and the philosophical tradition. It took people like Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Anselm to validate the whole Greco-Roman gang.

[4] The Sphericality of the earth was actually not  in doubt at the time of Galileo, Copernicus and Columbus– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_Flat_Earth

[5] Creation Myth making runs deeper than Creationism-vs-Evolution sabre-rattling. It seems to be a lingering habit of human narratives in general to help with the preserving  of history. Conceiving a single founder or inventor who is outstanding, and completely devoid of any historical context/historical regularity, is more appealing than saying “these long-standing  traditions and practices eventually produced a series of impetuses in people who helped codify this practice /accomplish this thing.” Stephen Jay Gould deals with this Creation myth-making and Creation myth-believing habits, in the context of the origins of Baseball, in The Creation Myths of Cooperstown, which I highly recommend: http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1989_11_pick.html

[6] History as its own discipline in the West was absent prior to about the 18th-19th century. Historically prior to that, History was a subset of Political Philosophy. Otherwise, the concern with historical thinking tended to be an emphasis on simply chronicling events of the past, or pursuing it as “lessons” for the sake of another discipline.

[7] Critique of Pure Reason

[8] Deontology Ethics of Kant

[9] “Kant’s Nebular Hypothesis and Its Influence on Later Writings” 1996, by Russell McNeil (  http://records.viu.ca/~mcneil/kantlec.txt ), “Essay on The Nebular Hypothesis of Immanuel Kant” 2011 by RAJAN D, ( http://www.preservearticles.com/2011111717313/essay-on-the-nebular-hypothesis-of-immanuel-kant.html )

[10] Or, reinvent-the-wheel-and-get-back-to-where-we-just-started-ism

[11] It is worth noting here that the learned back in the day, were largely homeschooled/home-tutored — or better, autodidacts.

[13] *Knowledge Redundancy will be explored further and more specifically in a future entry.

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2 Comments

  1. Fascinating stuff. I’m quite sympathetic to your general thesis: My wife was a career counselor for quite some time and she had this occupations handbook that would grow by several pages every year – it was like watching a thermometer of social complexity slowly heating up. This has to become a problem at some point, something that renders synoptic overviews of the whole more and more difficult to arrive at. My experience has been that this job of ‘synoptic description/problom-solving’ is being farmed out more and more to people like you and me: novelists with eclectic interests and no institutional demands necessitating fringe flattening focus.

    What I don’t follow is the assumption that the old philosophical paradigm, the traditional one, still obtains. This puzzles me about transhumanism more generally: at no time has the ‘nature of the human’ been more in doubt, and yet you H+ guys keep… pretending? otherwise. Anyway, I invite to comment and critique on my own view of this problem at:

    http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/less-human-than-human-the-cyborg-fantasy-versus-the-neuroscientific-real/

    • Thank you for your comment!

      The issue isn’t necessarily that the old paradigm of the discipline of Philosophy (with a capital P) was superior. E.g., I’m not saying that, by studying Plato and Aristotle, it’ll be enough to understand the deep complexities of universe. What I am saying is that, in the approach to learning, knowledge was seen as universal — patterns of nature are replicated across disciplines, and throughout life’s experiences, in an organic continuity. Knowledge doesn’t exist in a void.

      We can very much have this in the modern era — and I think we’ve moving towards it actually, in disciplines like Mathematics, Complexity theory, Statistics, Cognitive Neuroscience, Evolutionary Anthropology, etc. Mostly in the sciences. Contemporary Philosophy, however — and many of our contemporary non-scientific disciplines — are lacking wholeheartedly in this approach (which this article is largely an attack on).

      That said, I do agree with you: in the complexity of modern society, knowledge becomes necessarily compartmentalized and super-specialized; it’d be impossible for one person to know all of these things in serious practical terms. But how much of this knowledge — especially when it comes to theoretical knowledge– is just pedantic fluff, and words coined that don’t need to be? I’m sure if you took all the words from different theories, thinkers, scientists, etc, and stripped them down to their bare, naked meaning, you will find an insane rate of repetition.

      As an aside though, it’s interesting to note that, whenever you speak informally about philosophy or the “Big Questions” to people of different occupational backgrounds, they tend to use terminology from their trade to get at these higher truth and patterns. Eg, we see this a lot with computer-geeks, who tend to speak of the universe like it’s a computer program really understand the world like it’s a computer program. (Incidentally, there tend to be certain philosophical biases that come along with that.) You see this a lot too when you’re trying to explain to new things to certain kinds of people — they’ll always draw analogies and try to find patterns. So there’s a natural tendency in curious human beings to seek patterns from their own experiences, and project them onto the big questions/other fields.
      (Actually, early pre-Socratic Greek Philosophy [before philosophy’s technical terms were agreed upon by Plato and Aristotle], was ridden with words from technology, farming, manufacturing, seafaring, healthcare, chemistry, etc.)

      I’m not really a good card-carrying, patented Transhumanist (Hell, I’m more mystified by humanity’s use of stone tools and fire, than supercomputers and intergalactic spaceflight.) I realize the diversity in humanity, but I also realize that there are hard-wired conditions for our existence as such, our cognition, and our sapience. The changing nature of our understanding of humanity is certainly a fascinating topic. And your post looks very interesting, expect a response soon!


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Plagiarism, Ghostwriting, False Author Attribution, and Academic Fraud before the Modern Academia (Postscript to “The Decline of Thinking’s Universality”) […]

  2. […] of historical reoccurrence: the notion that history repeats itself. As with my previous post regarding the death of philosophy, this is not a particularly revolutionary idea in this day and age. It’s wisdom you would’ve […]

  3. […] of historical reoccurrence: the notion that history repeats itself. As with a previous post regarding the death of philosophy, this is not a particularly revolutionary idea in this day and age. It’s wisdom you would’ve […]

  4. […] >The Decline of Thinking’s Universality […]

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